Seeing where and how alcohol is made is a unique and fascinating experience. If you’ve never been to a Stillhouse before, you should consider taking a day trip in the near future. At the distillery, you can witness the fermentation and distillation process in action, and you can taste the various types of alcohol that are produced.
In addition, you can learn more about the long history of alcohol creation and the various types of spirits we drink today. While you might have heard of or even tasted bourbon, whiskey, vodka, rum, and gin before, you might not know what each one is made of and how they are produced. Read on to find out more about the history of alcohol, how it is created, and what to expect on your visit to your local distillery.
A distillery is where spirits like whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin are produced. If you’ve never been in one, you’ll be surprised at the number of machines, gadgets, and tools used during the distillation process. The setup is quite complex, especially if multiple of the above-named drinks are created in the same place. When you enter, you might see large copper pots or tall tubes that are connected to each other.
The people working at a distillery must take on many jobs, especially if none of the processes are automated. They might have to monitor the mashing, fermenting, malting, and distillation processes, measure and mix the ingredients together, check and maintain the machinery, make sure that the alcohol is stored correctly, and keep a record of what is produced.
Below 14-18% ABV, alcohol can be left to ferment. In other words, yeast chemically breaks down the ingredients, producing alcohol and CO2 as waste products. But above these ABV levels, the amount of alcohol becomes toxic to the yeast, and there are no longer enough sugars available for the fermentation process. At that stage, we need to distill the drink to further increase its alcohol content.
In essence, distillation is the process of taking a lower alcohol base and making it harder. This is achieved by boiling the ethanol off the water, collecting the vapors in tubes, and then cooling them back down so that the alcohol can return to its liquid state. Since alcohol has a much lower boiling point than water, it’s easy to separate the two ingredients and therefore create purer spirits.
Distillation has been happening since the time of the ancient Greeks, who believed that spirits had sacred powers. The first type of distillation they invented was with wine. Because salt raises the boiling point of the wine and therefore makes the process easier, it was often added to the early recipes. By the first century AD, there were three types of stills, but they were mainly used to obtain substances like mercury and sulfur, which were used in alchemy.
For many centuries, people believed that spirits could lead to a longer life or even immortality, partly due to the fact that alcohol preserves human flesh. Over time, the practice spread around the continents, but spirits were mainly used for medicinal and religious purposes until the 14th century, when both royals and common people began to drink high-ABV beverages more regularly.
The original distillation method is called pot, or alembic, distilling. It involves using a big pot into which the fermented liquid is poured and where it is heated up. The ethanol evaporates first, then travels through a tube that cools it down and allows it to turn back into a liquid. It then flows into another vessel and is collected. Because there is less water present in the new substance, it has a higher ABV.
Often, the ethanol isn’t the only substance present in the distilled drink. Congeners are components that also evaporate during the distillation process. They might include methanol, tannins, and esters, and they can change the flavor of the drink. Skilled distillers can make sure that the correct amounts of ethanol and congeners are mixed to create the perfect beverage.
In the 19th century, larger and larger quantities of alcohol were needed as both the population and the demand grew. Therefore, distillers looked for a faster way of producing high-ABV alcohol. Two people, Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey, independently invented and refined the process now called column distilling. Instead of placing the initial liquid, also called the mash or the wash, inside a large pot, it is poured into a metal column.
The liquid is continuously added to the column and heated up, so the process never stops or slows down. Therefore, there is no cleanup required between batches, which saves a lot of time. Spirits can also be distilled several times through this process, so a more neutral taste and a higher ABV can be achieved. In most modern distilleries, this process is preferred, although both the pot and the column methods are still in use today.
At the Stillhouse, many types of spirits can be distilled. While some larger distilleries focus on just one or two types of alcohol, many locally owned and operated businesses produce a wide variety of products. Here at Town’s End, we own and operate a 500-liter German-built copper still, in which we manufacture bourbon, whiskey, vodka, rum, and gin. Each of these beverages is unique and offers something different to the drinker.
Whiskey is made from various grains such as corn, rye, barley, or wheat, and it therefore has a brown color. It is popular all around the world, with many whiskey drinkers living in Scotland, Ireland, the US, and Japan. During the manufacturing process, the grains are mixed with water and wheat to produce the mash. This type of beer is then distilled, and the result is a spirit with an ABV of 40-70%.
Interestingly, whiskey isn’t meant to be drunk immediately. Instead, it is aged in barrels for several years. As a result, many whiskeys taste of wood or oak. There are many variations of this beverage, and it can be consumed on its own, with ice, as a shot, or in a cocktail.
This drink is actually a type of whiskey that was invented in the US. To be considered bourbon, the spirit’s mash must contain at least 50% corn, distilled at 160 proof or less, and stored in a certain kind of oak barrel. What’s more, the drink is not allowed to have any additives. Usually, bourbon is stored for at least two years, and sometimes much longer.
Typically, drinkers experience the beverage as flavorful. It contains notes of vanilla, spice, caramel, and oak. Just like other types of whiskey, it can be consumed on its own or mixed into a cocktail. One of the most famous drinks created with bourbon is the mint julep.
Unlike whiskey and bourbon, vodka is clear and cannot be distinguished from water by just looking at it. Most commonly, it is distilled from potatoes or grains, and it originates from Russia or Poland. Nowadays, distillers all around the world create this drink because it is used in countless shots, cocktails, and mixed drinks. Essentially, vodka is tasteless or has a very subtle taste, so it can be combined with a wide variety of flavors.
Rum is a spirit that is distilled from molasses, syrup, or pure cane sugar. It was first produced in the Caribbean and South America, but it soon got exported to the US, where it has enjoyed great popularity for several centuries. After being distilled, rum is aged in wooden caskets, and the composition of the wood often determines the final flavor.
Because rum is made from sugar, it tastes sweeter than the other types of alcohol mentioned. There are many different options, including dark, gold, light, flavored, and spiced rum, and each one has a unique flavor profile. Rum is most commonly used in mixed drinks such as the mojito or the daiquiri.
Just like vodka, gin is a completely clear drink, but it has a much more distinguishable taste. It is distilled from a natural substance such as grapes, wheat, potatoes, or barley, and its predominant flavor must be juniper. Traditionally, there were three distinct types of gin, but nowadays, some of the newer creations don’t fall within these categories. Some people drink this spirit neat, but it is also used in cocktails and mixed drinks like the gin and tonic.
In recent years, countless local, family-owned distilleries have sprung up all around the US. Visiting a Stillhouse is a wonderful experience, and it can make drinking your favorite spirit even more special. You will get to see the distillation process in action, discover how alcohol is produced, and learn more about the centuries-old traditions that have shaped the way we create drinks today.
While you can enjoy your drink at the adjacent restaurant and bar, you should also consider visiting the tasting room, where you can try the various creations and discover your new favorites. Call us now at Town’s End in Apple Valley, CA to book your day trip or find out more about the events we host at our distillery.